Big Boats Mean Big Angling Fun!
-Party Boats Offer Something for Everyone-
By: Capt. Charlie Walker
One of the many hats that I used to wear was that of party boat Captain. I have run most of the party boats in the St. Pete area at one time or another, from the small 45 footers to the larger 115-foot boats. Because of these experiences I guess I am more qualified than most to tell you what to expect on a party boat if you have never been out on one. Guess what folks, its the same as fishing anywhere, you never know what to expect. There are some things that are standard though, no matter what boat you take on the Suncoast. (By the way, the Suncoast is an area of Florida that generally runs from Crystal River on the north to Naples on the south. Some promoters would say that is too big an area, but most residents consider that the Suncoast. )
Generally, there are three trips to choose from when party boat fishing. Half-day trips, all day trips, and overnight trips. There are others such as night snapper trips, twelve hour wreck trips and who knows what else that the trip promoters want you to try, but the basics are half, full, and overnight.
The half-day trips are four to five hours and basically shallow water trips for the family. There are many "regulars" on these trips as well, because you can catch a lot of fish if you know what you are doing - for a relatively small price. Even if you dont know what you are doing, the crew on the boat is there to help you have a good time by catching fish. None of the boats want you to go away unhappy so they will usually go to great lengths to see that everyone catches fish. The price of most half-day trips varies, but generally includes the tackle, bait, and license. Discounts are offered for youth, seniors, milatary discounts and those with their own tackle.
The tackle provided is usually a medium quality Penn reel on a five foot, limber boat rod with forty-pound line and a four-ounce sinker. The leaders are made from thirty-pound line and the hooks are usually 2/0 or 3/0 size. The bait that all the half-day boats provide is cut squid. If you want different bait they will let you purchase and bring along your own if you like. Usually a box of sardines is a pretty good investment for a half-day trip, but you dont need them. When I said the crew will do what it takes to make you happy, this includes fishing lessons, taking your fish off the hook if necessary and of course stringing them for you in the fish box. There are many other services the crew will provide to make you happy, but folks, you have to bait your own hooks. Dont even get on the boat if no one in your family is willing to dip into the squid and bait their own hook after the mate shows them how.
The bread and butter fish of the half-day boats is the "gray snapper." This is a name coined by a sharp promoter in the forties or fifties because it sounds better than "grunt" which is really the name for the fish you will catch in the one to four pound range. Dont let this dissuade you from taking a half-day trip. They are delicious to eat as are the true gray (mangrove) snapper you may also catch. Theyre fun to catch on the tackle that the boats provide, and even more fun on a little lighter tackle if you take your own. There are many other fish that you can look forward to in a half-day depending on the time of year. In the winter grouper move inshore to the shallow water where the half-day boats fish. It is fairly common in the winter for grouper to be taken on every trip, and its exciting to pull grouper on the medium weight tackle that you are provided on the boats. In the spring and fall, the migratory fish such as mackerel, kingfish, and cobia are in these same areas because their food is living on these reefs. In the summer time, watch out for the sharks, as well as all the others that I have listed so far. All of these fish make for an exciting morning or afternoon of fishing on the half-day boats in the Gulf of Mexico. Dont forget, this is fishing you never know what to expect.
Full day trips for double the fun
The full day trips are as varied as the season of the year. The hours are simply double the half day - eight to ten hours - and the prices are not bad, $40.00 to $50.00 per person, again including tackle with the same types of discounts as the half days. The bait is again squid, but on the full day trips, they also generally supply frozen sardines. Some of the all day boats have live wells, and you can purchase or catch your own live bait to take along for the day as well. Those that do not have live wells will allow you to bring along portable systems for live bait as long as you tell them in advance that you will be bringing your own live bait well (limited space on some boats may create problems.) The tackle is usually the same as the half-day boats, but some full day trips have a little heavier tackle available. It is always a good idea to bring your own tackle on the full day trip if you have heavier tackle or favorite tackle, since the probability of larger fish is higher than on the half days.
The fish you can expect strictly depend on the time of year. In the winter you will see a lot of grouper, the spring and fall hold mackerel, kings, mangrove snapper, and cobia. Summer not only adds sharks, but since the full day boats can travel further, you can also anticipate some back-breaking amberjack and others in the jack family that will really pull your string. Summer also holds plenty of barracuda, so it is sometimes a good idea to carry a little forty pound wire with you if you dont want to be bitten off when the cudas move in. You will still see a lot of gray snapper, "gray snapper", sea bass and triggerfish as well though, since they are still the bread and butter fish in the Gulf. Some of the all day boats will have galleys on board with food and drink available for sale, others will not. You should definitely ask ahead of time. Ten hours is a long time to go without eating or drinking. As for beer, some will allow you to bring your own and some will not. But all the full day boats will have it for sale. If you have small kids, I would not generally suggest taking them on a full day trip. Unless you are certain that they love fishing and can stand being cooped up in one place for that many hours, take them on the half days. You have to remember that on a fishing boat you will be elbow to elbow with twenty to one hundred people that you have never seen before. Even though most fishermen are alike because they enjoy the same thing that you enjoy fishing - they are as different as any other large group when it comes to personality, patience, language (dirty or clean), and of course how well they hold their alcohol. The crew cannot shield your children, wife, or girlfriend from the language used by some people when they have a few beers, and you should not expect them to. Please dont misunderstand me, this is not to be expected, but you should consider the possibility of obnoxious people being on board when you plan your trip. I havent found anywhere in the world to get away from them completely. (Even at home, my wife says Im obnoxious.)
On the boats that I have run, the crew will clean your catch for you, generally for twenty five cents apiece for the small fish and twenty five cents per pound for the larger ones. You will get boneless, skinless fillets in a plastic bag that you can either freeze, cook yourself, or take to one of the many restaurants that will cook your catch for you. Unless you are on a tight budget (you skinflint you) I would suggest the restaurant. Ask the crew which one they suggest and go there for dinner. You can expect to pay around $3.95 per person and will generally get beverage, slaw, and potato with your own fish prepared the way you prefer, fried, broiled, or blackened. How could you possible beat that? Fresh fish that you caught and ate and no cleanup to do afterwards.
The long haul overnighters
Last, but not least, are the overnight trips. These will usually last for thirty-six hours or so. Most boats leave the dock at around eight PM Friday night and return on Sunday between six AM and noon. Many of them run mid-week trips as well, such as Tuesday night until Thursday morning. These trips are more expensive of course, depending on whether it is the weekend or mid-week trip, and usually the same discounts would apply as on the other trips. This is of course a much more involved trip. You will need changes of clothes, bedding, towels, coolers, and anything you think you will need for three days on the water. The boats will have a galley with food and drinks for sale, but I wouldnt depend on them for all my food and drink needs. I would take a few sandwiches or fried chicken, drinks, and snacks for myself just to be sure I wouldnt be hungry if I didnt like the cook. You can, of course use the boats tackle, but on a trip like this, I prefer to take my own.
Make arrangements ahead of time for live bait as well. The boat will have live wells, but it is necessary for you to catch or buy your own live bait before the trip. As on the all day trips, the boat will supply you with frozen sardines and squid, but I would not spend this kind of money to go fishing without taking live bait. Just so you have an idea of the type of bait to take, pinfish are always good, the bigger the better. Many regulars will come to the dock early in the afternoon and catch spadefish up to two or so pounds. Spot tail grunts are also excellent. Many times I have had fishermen on my half-day trips doing nothing but catching bait for the overnight trip they have booked for that same evening. Also, when you are booking this trip, make sure you sign up for a live well and arrange with the bait shop well in advance for your live bait. You dont want to get there the night of the trip just to find that all the bait wells were taken or that no more pinfish were for sale just because you forgot to book ahead. As far as where to fish on the boat, the back is always the most popular. The regulars will sometimes have their spots on the back of the boat booked and paid for months in advance, but dont let this deter you. You can catch fish from anywhere on the boat, if you listen to the mates and the Captain and watch what the successful fishermen on the boat are doing and how they are rigging.
The tackle to take with you should include a heavy seven to eight foot rod, at least a 4/0 reel wound with eighty pound test Triple Fish line. This will be your grouper rod. You will be fishing in water that is one hundred to two hundred feet deep and you need all the power in the rod and reel that you can get to grind up fifteen to thirty pound grouper out of the bottom. These are the common sized fish. I have seen many grouper over one hundred pounds brought in by these boats, so you need to be ready. Your rod for snapper fishing should be seven to eight feet with a fairly limber tip, a 3/0 reel or larger, wound with forty pound Triple Fish. Snapper fight hard from these depths and they grow large. You will need the rod to bend and work the fish hard in order to get him quickly up that far to the surface. The regulars also take six feet or so of neoprene plumbing insulation that is used around hot water pipes along with a roll of duct tape. They will wrap the top rail where they will be fishing with the insulation to keep from ruining their rod on the rail. This is more important than you may think. If you get a large fish on in deep water, there is no way to hold the rod without using the top rail as a fulcrum while you put your weight on the butt of the rod with it under your arm while you grind the reel. These fish are coming straight up from the bottom, they are not running away from the boat and taking out line. Your reel drag is locked down tight and you had better be ready to hold on to your tackle and fight harder than the big bruiser that is on the other end of the line fighting for his life. You will need hooks from 3/0 to 8/0 and Triple Fish Leader Spools of 30#, 40#, 50#, 80#, and even some 100# leader wont hurt. Take plenty of egg-shaped sinkers with swivels on either end, in the 6 oz., 8 oz., and 10 oz. sizes. You can buy them on the boat, just as you can use the boats tackle, but I prefer to have my own.
The fishermen on these trips are as varied as any other. The biggest difference is that most of the regulars are hard core commercially oriented fishermen that act like they are not out there to have fun. Usually, once you get to know them, they are OK guys. I sometimes wonder why they bother with the "attitude". There are a lot easier ways to make money than by fishing. The accommodations on these trips are relatively spartan, there are no private quarters, generally bunks down below that are open to everyone. If the weather kicks up there will be seasick people. This is not a pretty sight for anyone and the smell is definitely conducive to getting you to join them in their misery. There is no "turn around and take me home". You will be from eighty to one hundred fifty miles offshore in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, and whatever happens on the boat, you cant get off until it gets back to the dock at the scheduled time. This can be an incredible fishing experience if you know what to expect, or it can be a nightmare if you dont.
Choosing an overnight party boat
You should shop around for the boat with the best reputation before you plunk down your money. Talk to other people that have taken these trips before and get their feelings about it. The captain and crew on these over-niters are usually professionals who run these trips exclusively, and for the most part, they know their jobs well. The boats are all different. They have different accommodations, carry different numbers of anglers, run at different cruising speeds, and have varying levels of comfort available when sleeping, resting, eating, and fishing. Do your homework before you decide. Never pick a trip like this on price alone. Find out when the boat docks and be there to see the catches, several times if possible. Talk to the Captain and crewmen, and let them know that you are trying to decide which trip that you want to take. Just dont forget, after thirty-six straight hours of fishing, the crew may not be the most personable people that you have ever met. Sometimes its better to talk to them before the next trip instead.
Remember the crew
I certainly dont want to forget the Captain and crew here. On all the boats you will be told that the mates work for tips. Its true. They will get a pittance from the company, maybe twenty to twenty-five dollars per half day trip, but they certainly could not live on that, could you? Be as generous as you feel the service deserves when you tip the mates. A rule of thumb could be the same as in a restaurant, 15% to 20% of the total charges for the trip. This is not exorbitant. If you have a family of four and the trip cost you $84.00, the tip should be $13.00 to $17.00 and its even better to hand him a twenty. Thats a pretty inexpensive five hours entertainment for four people. Of course, if you feel the service was lousy, then dont tip him, but please take the Captain or the manager at the dock aside and let them know that you didnt tip, and why. The Captains on the party boats are not exactly overpaid either, and will usually accept a tip if you feel the fishing was good and that he deserves some of the credit for putting you on the good fishing spots. No one "gives" a Captain the knowledge necessary to find fish on a daily basis. He or she has worked very hard over many years to not only find the spots that hold fish, but also learn when each area is productive. This knowledge doesnt come easily or cheaply to the Captain, believe me - he has a little bit of himself in every fish that you put in the boat.
I started out just to give you a little insight into party boat fishing, but instead I may have gotten carried away. I hope that if you have never gone out on a party boat before this description has made it seem a worthwhile and fun thing to do. If nothing else, perhaps I have piqued your curiosity so that you will give it a try. Party boat fishing is one of the best ways to introduce youngsters and adults to saltwater fishing because they are nearly guaranteed of catching fish, and after all, isnt that why you want to take them fishing with you?
Good fishing and tight lines,
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